I think 2019 will be the year of the PC Digital Store Wars.
Steam has held a tight grip on the lead for so long, and also often takes the laid back approach instead of the proactive one when it’s time for real change.
That passive attitude is about to face serious competition.
Epic Games launched the first big salvo, with their new store and its much lower 12 percent royalty deduction. Ubisoft and EA both struck out on their own years ago with UPlay and Origin. Ubisoft is now abandoning Steam for their upcoming Division 2, and EA launched Origin Premier, offering a full library of PC games for a low subscription price.
Not to mention other strong stores like Humble and GoG…though the latter has had its share of PR controversies that have kept it in the limelight recently in a bad way.
And then there’s Razer.
Razer, the company originally known for making fancy black gaming mice…but which now makes keyboards, headsets, computers, and cell phones. They went from a niche product to the most mainstream PC peripheral and gaming hardware brand. And had enough capital to snag away THX from the clutches of the Lucas/Disney merger.
They’re big, and they’re hoping to be your PC software platform of choice.
Their Synapse software used to just be a way for gamers to customize the Chroma(TM) lighting on their mouse or keyboard, and sync that data across different devices and computers.
Now, it’s one small piece of a whole platform that combines a full digital store, system optimization, and…cryptocurrency mining… into one robust package.
I hadn’t used Synapse 3.0 until last week. I bought a Razer Nari for fun, testing, and review purposes… and was required to install the software in order to use all of my new headset’s features.
Years ago, this would have bothered me.
But in today’s world of “throw my data away as fast as I can to make a new account for something,” it’s like, whatever. Plus, I already had a Razer account.
A quick scan of the internet reveals a wide range of opinions on Razer’s new glorified RGB configurator…but I like it.
It still offers quick control over all the aspects of your current Razer peripheral, and it now offers control over all sorts of smart bulbs and appliances I don’t actually own. Sadly, my old Blackwidow keyboard isn’t supported, so I have to run Synapse 2.0 also. Yay?
I can’t help but wonder if there’s a real reason for this lack of support for legacy Chroma devices, or if it’s just a subtle way to try and get me to upgrade to a newer keyboard?
Then, I noticed the Razer Central icon in my notification area, and I found a whole smorgasboard of other delights and…things.
I had a vague notion that Razer Cortex existed before now, but I had no idea it was meant to be the main hub of Razer’s digital PC ecosystem.
Cortex offers a bunch of stuff that looks, at first, like questionable nonsense…but much of it is actually useful.
System optimizers are not new. But Razer’s does a great job of kicking in only when games are running, and of auto-selecting processes to shut down that won’t crash your system when they stop running. I’m not sure if it makes any pronounced difference to game performance, but I enjoy watching the animation spin up and down as it turns off and on. It feels like the Windows 10 Game Mode…but it’s actually doing something.
The true star of Cortex is the unassuming “Deals” tab…which is really an incredibly useful tool that also happens to tie into Razer’s GameStore.
You can search for any PC game, and Deals will attempt to find the best price across a wide variety of online stores…including Steam, Amazon, and Humble, among others. It’ll show you what DRM, if any, those stores use, and it’ll show you the cheapest price they’ve ever had on the item.
The first time I used this I was like “are you KIDDING me? This is SO HELPFUL!”
One of the biggest challenges for consumers in the current multi-store market is having to search every store for the best deal. Razer’s deals tab includes many of the big ones, and does all the leg work so quickly and so well that it’ll now be the first place I go when looking for a game on PC.
It allowed me to get deals on a couple games I thought I had missed out on by waiting too long during the Steam sale…and helped me maintain my current cheap game buying ethos.
It’s also refreshing to see a platform actually acknowledge that there’s competition out there rather than just push their own stuff right down your gullet. It reminds me a little bit of hotel and insurance aggregator web sites.
Of course, Razer would like you to notice the “advantages” of buying from Razer’s store. They have an incentive/rewards program where you earn Razer Silver, a fake currency that you can redeem for digital discounts, game codes, and physical Razer peripherals.
Razer’s not the first platform to offer a rewards program like this. Humble has one, as does Nintendo on the Switch. Microsoft has one that used to be better but now requires you to use Bing a lot. And Steam has trading cards…that you have to earn by playing games, and then sell for mere pennies…which Steam also gets a cut of.
Speaking of business practices that many are unsure about, a few weeks ago Razer launched an application inside their platform that lets you mine Cryptocurrency in order to earn Razer Silver.
I somehow missed the wave of controversy around Razer’s Softminer application when it launched last month.
And I totally get it. Participating in a distributed cryptocurrency network so that other people get real dollars while you get fake money is an idea that several people are going to be frustrated about.
But I also think it’s fascinating.
It’s not really optimal for individuals, even those who own one powerful PC, to mine Crypto for profit on their own any more. That short-lived boom is seemingly done. But a distributed network of thousands of gaming PC’s? That could do it, no sweat. And make someone very wealthy.
In this particular case, the company getting wealthy is called GammaNow. They pay Razer a flat fee for the processing power, and Razer pays a percentage of that to each user in the form of Razer Silver.
Other folks have done the math, and it seems that you come out behind on power cost vs Razer Silver. But of course you do.
But just…hear me out for a second. That sort of calculation forgets a couple of things.
Firstly: time. Time is money.
Yes, I might lose a little money on electricity compared to the rewards I’m getting…but I also got something out of that GPU time that would otherwise go to waste. I’m not sitting in front of my gaming PC all the time. What if I could have it do work that gave me something? And what if that something were Razer discounts?
Secondly: the above-mentioned Ecosystem. If you’re someone who is already deep into the Razer ecosystem, you’re probably earning Razer Silver in a lot of other ways. Imagine that you’re just a few hundred points short of getting a new mouse, or whatever. You could run the Softminer for a day while you’re at work/out to eat/etc, and come home with enough credits to buy that mouse.
“But Alex, surely you’re not defending this? You’re not saying this is better than contributing your CPU power to something altruistic like Folding@Home, are you?”
If you want to go and support Folding@Home, I would urge it! I ran several Folding machines for years back around the launch of the PS3, when they first launched their console build of their medical research software.
And before that, I was way into SETI@Home. All of my friends in High School were on a team together because we totally weren’t geeks.
I’ve always liked distributed computing.
I’ve always liked watching the numbers go up as I earn meaningless points, regardless of the medium.
I’m not saying that Razer’s Softminer is better for the world than other distributed platforms, not at all…but once I’ve watched the numbers go up, I then get to spend those numbers on video games.
And that’s interesting/neat/different. And not totally without merit.
I have no idea who is going to come out on top in the impending PC store platform wars. Heck, I’m the guy who never thought Fortnite would eclipse PUBG the way it has…even though PUBG is a broken video game in a lot of ways.
So I frequently guess wrong about this stuff.
But it’s cool that it’s finally happening after years of Steam dominance. And with their dramatic mainstream user base, wide family of different peripherals, and hilariously robust software/store ecosystem that also happens to include a crypto mining application…Razer has a real shot at it. For good or for ill.
I went from totally unaware of all this last week to a big fan of their Deals system this week. And that’s all it takes to acquire a new customer.